There isn’t much to complain about with the Patriots riding a seven-game winning streak into their late Week 14 bye week.
Since New England turned its season around starting in Week 7, they’re the best team in the NFL, ranking first in expected points added (EPA) and DVOA on their way to the top of the AFC.
Even though everything is current sunshine and rainbows, Bill Belichick has bigger aspirations than to lead the conference after 13 weeks and the bye week is all about self-scouting.
Taking an honest assessment of where the Patriots are offensively, their red-zone efficiency needs to improve for New England to win in the postseason.
The Patriots rank 26th in red zone touchdown efficiency this season, sandwiched between two non-playoff teams in Chicago and Denver (54.4%). Although they’re improving during their winning streak, the Pats offense is still just 17th in the red zone since Week 7 (60.7%).
The biggest thing holding the Pats back in the red zone is their inability to score or move the ball from the high red zone. The Pats’ power running game takes over from inside the five, with 11 rushing touchdowns (third-most) and the third-highest EPA per attempt from inside the five.
However, New England is 27th in EPA per play in the high red zone (6-19 yard line). In layman’s terms, the Pats can play bully-ball from inside the five but are stalling before they get there too often.
“We just have to go out there and do it better. You can’t just reinvent the wheel and create these new plays. It just comes down to execution and a mindset that, ‘hey, we’re going to score here instead of kick a field goal,’” Patriots quarterback Mac Jones told CLNS Media this week.
“We can do a better job of that obviously. The statistics say that. Getting up to that 70% mark, where the really good teams are at in the red-zone, around 74% or whatever. That’s where we want to be.”
The Pats’ rookie quarterback is right in that the best teams in the red zone are above 70 percent, with San Francisco (75.8%) and New Orleans (71.1%) currently pacing the league.
Now the question is, how do the Patriots awaken their red zone offense for the stretch run? Here are some ideas that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is likely scheming up already:
ATTACK THE END ZONE FROM THE FRINGE RED ZONE
The Patriots should embrace forgoing the red zone altogether by attacking the end zone from just outside the 20-yard line (20-30 yards from the end zone).
Although the Pats might not generate many 40-plus yard plays, rookie quarterback Mac Jones has four touchdowns from the fringe red zone and has a good feel for taking shots in that area of the field, as shown by his successful touchdown throws above.
Jones’s rookie season has been wildly successful and will serve as a foundation for a long career. With that said, every player can improve in certain areas. For Jones, that’s against the blitz.
Other than when Belichick takes the ball out of his hands in a windstorm, the only thing consistently slowing down Jones is blitzing him, and teams are frequently doing it to stall New England’s scoring drives.
This season, Jones has taken three sacks from inside the opponent’s 30-yard line when the defense rushes five or more defenders, has four interceptions against the blitz, and he has been blitzed the fourth-most out of any quarterback, meaning it’s an ongoing strategy against him.
In New England’s system, setting protections against blitz threats is as much on the QB as the center or offensive line. But the blockers also need to recognize delayed blitzes after the snap.
McDaniels put the onus on the blockers to improve in blitz pickup, but Mac also shoulders some responsibility for not seeing blitzes quickly.
For example, Mac doesn’t ID the safety walking up to the line of scrimmage right before the ball is snapped to his left on the play above. Instead of redistributing his seven blockers to ultimately pick up only five rushers, the protection slides to his right and leaves the safety unblocked.
The blitz pressure manifests itself into negative plays for the Patriots in the scoring zone, putting them behind the chains or forcing them to kick field goals due to third down pressure.
Although it’s been a problem for the offense, it’s fixable if everyone gets on the same page.
HORIZONTALLY STRETCH THE DEFENSE/MORE CREATIVITY
McDaniels knows the importance of stretching the field horizontally inside the red zone as the field shrinks and the offense loses its verticality.
Over the last few weeks, the Pats have used speedy wideout Nelson Agholor on drag routes from condensed splits on either mesh-style concepts or delayed-release routes to get him free.
Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, or Jonnu Smith are also good candidates to receive “pop” passes that used to be more prevalent in New England’s offense. This season, the Patriots ran one “pop” pass so far. In comparison, they led the NFL with five in 2017 with Brady and Brandin Cooks.
To complement those jet sweep actions, the Patriots could add an Alabama staple called a “boomerang” or “return” motion that Jones is very familiar with after playing under Steve Sarkisian.
There are several other ways the Pats can stretch the defense horizontally to take advantage of the space available to them, such as bootleg designs.
McDaniels needs to open more room for his playmakers regardless of how they get it done.
MORE TE JONNU SMITH INSIDE THE 20
When the Patriots signed Smith to a four-year, $50 million contract in March, they imagined the veteran tight end blossoming in their offense as a versatile chess-piece and red zone threat.
This season, Smith’s production hasn’t lived up to his contract status so far. Mainly, he only has one touchdown after scoring nine red-zone TDs with the Titans a year ago (tied for most among tight ends with Travis Kelce).
(video credit: Taylor Kyles)
Tennessee incorporated Smith in various ways in the red zone from contested targets, flexing him outside to work matchups, crossing patterns off boot-action, jet sweeps, and more.
Even if the players should be held accountable for improving execution, McDaniels needs to utilize Smith more in the red zone. Based on his tape in Tennessee, he’s clearly a productive threat down there.
New England’s offense currently leads the NFL in scoring efficiency by coming away with points on 48.2% of their offensive drives this season, which is an impressive stat.
But they’re ninth in offensive points per game (25.3) because they’re kicking too many field goals, ending 24.1% of their drives with three points courtesy of Nick Folk (highest FG rate in NFL).
All points are good, and the Pats are moving the ball. Still, there’s another level for the Pats’ offense to reach by converting those field goals into touchdowns.
With the level of competition and stakes increasing, so will the necessity to take full advantage of their scoring opportunities.
As we used to say during the Brady years, you don’t beat elite offenses by kicking field goals.